Libya Tribune

By Bel Trew

The 76-year-old lost upwards of $55 million after he paid for war machinery that were never delivered.

Western mercenaries and businessmen, including British citizens, have swindled Libya’s rebel commander Khalifa Haftar out of tens of millions of dollars over the years for military hardware and services not delivered, The Independent has learnt.

The revelations come as General Haftar’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) suffered a stunning defeat in his ill-fated offensive to take Tripoli from forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) anchored there.

Video footage taken from strategic western Libya footholds he has lost over the last few days shows an array of expensive equipment his retreating troops were apparently forced to leave behind.

But according to diplomatic sources and people involved in past deals, it is not only military defeat that has cost the one-time CIA asset a lot of money.

The 76-year-old general has reportedly lost upwards of $55m (£43m) in public resources and patron contributions after war machinery such as an assault helicopter, a reconnaissance plane and an offshore patrol vessel were paid for but never materialised.

The reports shed further light into Libya’s already messy civil war that in recent years has become a deeply complex theatre of international mercenary and proxy warfare.

Despite a United Nations arms embargo, Turkey has sent troops, Syrian mercenaries, combat drones, military vehicles and anti-aircraft systems to the Tripoli-based GNA. Russia and the UAE are meanwhile accused of doing the same for General Haftar, who supports a rival government anchored in the eastern city of Tobruk. They deny the allegations.

General Haftar’s aides – including the head of an operations room in the east – also deny claims any of the deals took place, telling The Independent it is “propaganda” spread by the GNA.

But a recent confidential UN probe reports that a team of 20 foreign mercenaries, including five Britons (two of them former Royal Marines), 12 South Africans, two Australians and an American were paid upwards of $120,000 each last June to create a marine strike force.

UN investigators believe they were contracted to prevent Turkish-supplied weapons from reaching the GNA. During the three-month job the team were reportedly expected to track down, board and search vessels.

According to two diplomatic sources with knowledge of the report presented to the Security Council’s sanctions committee in February, the soldiers of fortune fled to Malta last June in two rigid inflatable boats (RHIB), just days after landing in east Libya after the deal went south.

On the island, they were briefly detained by the Maltese authorities who say the RHIBs were chartered by Maltese firm, Sovereign Charters, whose owner James Fenech was charged in April this year with leasing out the vessels in breach of EU sanctions on Libya.

The diplomats told The Independent a fight erupted between the group and Mr Haftar, who was furious that the value of the military hardware and services rendered totalled little more than an estimated $30 million of the $80 million paid.

The diplomats added that the famously explosive commander “swore revenge” and fearing for their lives, the group, who were apparently followed after the altercation, fled the country.

One of the sources said the UN probe found that General Haftar had received six older helicopters that he did not want, including three Gazelles and three Pumas – estimated by investigators to be worth no more than $14 million.

The journey of the aircraft spanned thousands of kilometres across the African continent: They were allegedly purchased in South Africa by a network of UAE-linked firms and flown to Libya from Botswana, on documents which suggested Jordan was their final destination.

According to the source, the investigators obtained documentation that the deal was supposed to contain a more expensive Cobra attack helicopter and a LASA T-Bird, an agricultural plane adapted for surveillance and warfare, as well as other hardware which never appeared.

The total personnel cost for the mercenaries was estimated to be no more than $2.4m – meaning there was a sizable shortfall.

The two diplomats said Dubai-based companies Lancaster 6 and Opus were named by UN investigators as allegedly paying for and managing the deals.

A spokesperson for the Lancaster 6 group vehemently denied allegations of instigating a private military mission, telling The Independent some of the documents listed as evidence were not theirs and adding that helicopters mentioned in the report were registered as civilian aircraft, were identified as “demilitarised” and had entered the country after the 20 individuals mentioned had left.

They did not comment on the reasons for the helicopter transfer and their relationship to it, the alleged $50m shortfall, or the nature of their connection to the individuals identified as mercenaries in the UN investigation.

The spokesperson conceded that the “group of people being mentioned were in Libya for a very short period, approximately 48 hours, did nothing, became concerned as to their personal safety and left the country before the helicopters … had even arrived in Libya”.

The statement added: “We intend to vigorously prosecute any false and misleading allegations and protect against any reputational harm suffered.”

But this was not the first time that General Haftar had apparently been duped out of millions. In another instance which took place during 2016 and 2017, he allegedly paid an American businessman to buy an offshore patrol vessel to guard the waters off east Libya – but the ship was never delivered.

A western diplomat familiar with the deal, and an employee of a UAE based company that was unwittingly caught up in it, said this businessman from Texas was paid over $6.5m by Mr Haftar, in partnership with one of the general’s sons, to purchase a naval ship. Had it been delivered it may have violated the UN arms embargo on Libya.

Under a now-defunct company, the businessman contracted the UAE-based Excel International to do repairs in early 2016 on the vessel, which included a helipad.

However, the Texan tycoon, who The Independent has chosen not to name, not only failed to deliver the boat to General Haftar’s forces, but failed to pay Excel International company, which had originally purchased the patrol vessel from the Mauritius coastguard as part of a legitimate business deal.

A senior Excel employee said the company had no idea General Haftar or the east Libyan authorities were the true purchaser – the deal was arranged under the name of the defunct company, which asked for the vessel to be repaired and repainted so it could be deployed to protect oil tankers for clients in the Middle East region.

A senior employee of Excel International told The Independent they were initially paid a small sum in 2016 but were still owed over $2m for repairs, maintenance, crew salaries and expenses.

The Independent received a document showing proof of a small wire transfer of money from the Texan individual to the captain of the boat in December 2016. After dodging a year of bills, the businessman eventually disappeared in late 2017. The UAE-based company kept the boat and renamed it.

Although he owes over $2m which is a significant financial blow, it turned out to be a lucky break for us when we eventually discovered the true destination of the boat,” the employee said, asking not to be named as they are not authorised to speak to the media.

The employee added that they had started to become concerned when payments were delayed and when they received numerous phone calls from people identifying themselves as “friends of the [East] Libyan government”, ie Haftar’s people, who were demanding to know when the vessel would be delivered.

The western diplomat told The Independent Libyan naval officers apparently flew to the UAE to follow up as well.

We did some research online and found out he may have even been jailed for drugs in the past,” the employee said.

We found he was also the president, the clerk, the driver of the business – he was basically the entire company.”

Its website has since been taken down.

The Texan businessman did not reply to repeated attempts by The Independent to contact him. His company no longer has any online presence.

Mr Haftar’s spokesman did not reply to The Independent’s request for comment. One of his aides flatly denied allegations of either deal telling The Independent they are “lies spread by the Government of National Accord, terrorists and the Muslim Brotherhood” Islamist group that is opposed to his forces.

The UN panel of experts reported last year that in May 2018 Haftar’s forces were able to eventually acquire a different offshore patrol vessel, which was later named “Al Karama”, or dignity.

This time the vessel was successfully purchased via a different UAE company named Universal Satcom Services, in violation of the arms embargo as it was classified as a naval vessel.

Since its transfer to Libya, the UN report said the Al Karama has been refitted with the weapons systems including one 40 mm cannon and two 20 mm cannons.

General Haftar has long been accused of receiving support from foreign powers in violation of the UN arms embargo in his bid to solidify power in the war-ravaged country.

His forces, which control swathes of east and south Libya, launched an operation to seize Tripoli last April.

After initial advances, the LAAF forces have suffered a series of crushing military setbacks over the last few months particularly following reports Turkey sent reinforcement to bolster its allies in the capital.

The US military said last week that Russian military personnel flew MiG 29 and SU-24 fighter planes to a Libyan airbase in a move to back Haftar and try to turn the tide of the complex war.

It does not little to turn the tide. General Haftar was in Cairo over the weekend to try to call for a ceasefire, which the GNA has refused.

___________

The Independent